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Chronicle of an asylum seeker's death foretold

  • 13 June 2014

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a man with 'his father's Arab eyelids and hair' was murdered in broad daylight, knifed several times against his mother's door, a breath from sanctuary.

I keep being reminded of Chronicle as I take in the submissions presented so far at the Senate inquiry into the February incidents at the Manus Island detention camps. In the novella, nearly the entire town knew of Santiago Nasar's impending death; his assassins had made a point of divulging their intent to everyone they met over the course of the day. A few, mostly women, sought to stop them but their efforts proved futile.

The prevailing impression from the Senate inquiry is one of similar inevitability and complicity. The former G4S guards who have appeared before the committee have been consistent in their assessment of the factors that facilitated the violence which left more than 70 injured and one man dead. It was not random; it was no secret.

In the press conference announcing the release of the Government-commissioned Cornall review last month, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said, 'There would have been no incident that night had there been no protests.' It is a shrunken statement against the horrific might of Reza Barati's death. Kicked repeatedly by several individuals, a large rock was then dropped on his head as he lay on the ground, cracking his skull.

Perhaps somewhere in an alternate dimension, Reza is sitting on a Melbourne train, starting another work day with a thankful prayer for the generosity of the country that had adopted him.

The tendrils of this tragedy are hopelessly entangled with the things that came before it: Kevin Rudd's decision to close all settlement options for seaborne asylum seekers, the Coalition expediting transfers to Manus Island, which pushed facilities beyond their capacity to provide humane conditions, the severe lack of security training, the requests for resource expansion that weren't met, the growing resentments against mostly Muslim detainees harboured by impoverished, mostly Christian, Papua New Guineans whose cultural identity is bound up with the land that Australia had subverted for its own politically expedient purpose, repeated G4S warnings about sharpening tensions, a meeting in which Australian and third-country settlement were confirmed non-viable.

Inevitability. Complicity. Yet the onus of the violence was placed only on detainees, with Morrison initially giving the impression that the 17 February melee occurred outside the compound. This was untrue. He also